If the maturity of a nation can be judged by the level of its public discourse, frequently Australia appears marooned in its early teenage years. The dialogue around refugees is only the worst example. ‘Stop the boats’ is a catchphrase designed to stifle rational debate, while the broad acceptance of ‘illegals’ as a label for desperate people fleeing repression defines us nationally even as it embarrasses us internationally.
The prevalence of such dismal political and media language reflects the general apathy toward the plight of asylum seekers that is consistently reflected in opinion polls. If only marginal voices are calling for change, then the call for change is doomed to remain marginal.
A lifetime of playing and following football (soccer) has heightened my empathy for refugees because soccer followers know all about being marginalised. It feels sometimes as if Australia is united in the belief that two foreign scourges represent the most danger to its supposedly unified culture: illegal immigrants and soccer.
The twentieth edition of the World Cup, the pinnacle of football, has recently concluded. Australia first qualified for this quadrennial event in 1973, coincidentally the year the White Australia Policy officially died. Our involvement since 2006 in three consecutive finals tournaments has raised interest amongst some – but hackles in others.
Even for devotees, the month-long World Cup can be an endurance test. Often the football itself eventually tests the patience (though not this time, for the quality was largely excellent). The politics around the sport also conspire to try one’s resolve – World Cups come and go but the governing body FIFA stays as dastardly and dictatorial as ever. The most fortitude, however, is required when, right on on cue every four years, voices emerge from the fourth estate to condemn soccer as antithetical to our ‘way of life’.
Though there are numerous repeat offenders, 2014 saw a new crop both here and in the US (soccer being considered as un-American as it is un-Australian). This time the outraged included, the US, the right-wing grotesque Ann Coulter, who finds increasing interest in soccer to be symptomatic of her nation’s ‘moral decay,’ and, in this country, Crikey political editor Bernard Keane and the Sydney Morning Herald’s Paul Sheehan.
The gripes of Keane and Sheehan were dispiritingly banal, essentially coming down to the claim that soccer is bad because it is not Australian rules or rugby league. Keane got all irritated because soccer players cannot pick up the ball in their hands. Both he and Sheehan bemoaned the lack of scoring during a World Cup that featured more goals than any other in recent memory. Sheehan made a particular mess of this argument by using Brazil’s unprecedented seven goal semi-final capitulation to Germany as evidence of what all soccer games need: more goals.
Evaluating a soccer match on the basis of the number of goals scored is about as crude as identifying all asylum seekers as potential terrorists. While the Germany-Brazil game will probably be the most remembered clash from this World Cup it wasn’t anywhere near the best: as a contest it was all over after twenty-five minutes. The absorbing early match-up between Portugal and the USA in the Arena Amazônia, Manaus, far better captured the game’s knife-edge appeal. Here, much-fancied Portugal desperately needed to win, yet with only seconds remaining the (for once) American underdogs deservedly led by two goals to one. Then, nonchalant Portuguese superstar Ronaldo, who achieved precisely fuck-all in the other 269 minutes he played in the competition, pooped the premature American party by bending in an unbearably precise 50-yard cross which the hitherto unknown striker Silvestre Varela headed spectacularly into the net. Moments later it was over; nobody had won, everyone felt dejected. It was just like real life.
But, as in real life, everyone soon moved on. The next day there would be another game, a different story to tell. (Even Ronaldo, who was later exposed as donating some of his grossly excessive salary to a boy dying of cancer, could be forgiven.)
American novelist Robert Coover describes soccer as ‘an open-ended morality play’; the Nigerian author Teju Cole notes how ‘arbitrariness plays a glorious and infuriating role.’ Both observations elegantly capture the complexity of a sport that unwittingly challenges presumed core Australian ideals by being culturally hybrid, by confusing masculine and feminine traits, and by being at heart unpredictable and at times unjust.
Another aspect of our imagined universal temperament that soccer allegedly disrupts revolves around notions of stoicism and resilience, features which in essence define the other football codes. Yet that is merely more overloaded rhetoric. Real stoicism is children in Angola or Afghanistan going out to play not knowing when a landmine might end their play forever. Resilience is abandoning your homeland to cross an unforgiving ocean in a shoddy boat because that seems like a better option than staying put.
Compared to the refugee issue, of course, criticisms of soccer should be deemed unremarkable – if someone does not approve of a game then that’s their business. Every sport in Australia has the right to try to broaden its sphere of influence: co-existence is the only sensible approach. Yet that the lazy objections of Keane, Sheehan and so many others make it into print (thus becoming part of the authorised discourse) hints at a much wider malaise in our society.
The next major soccer event in Australia – the 2015 Asian Cup – will be an isolationist’s nightmare: among those competing are China, Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Palestine. That tournament will bring tangible evidence of the frightening, dangerous unknown to these shores. The naysayers in the media will already be sharpening their clichés in anticipation.
Yet what is certain is that soccer is not going anywhere, no matter how many local commentators rage against it. Similarly, in coming years there will only be more displaced persons seeking refuge from the conflicts and famines of an increasingly dysfunctional world. Is it too much to hope that the dialogue will one day rise above the level of simply wishing both soccer and asylum seekers would go away?